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NASCAR drivers consider getting vaccinated, reducing appearances with new protocols

On the last lap of Stage 2, Brad Keselowski unintentionally gets into the back of Austin Dillon just beyond the start/finish line, sending Dillon into the wall and ending the day for the No. 3 Richard Childress driver.

BROOKLYN, Michigan – Corey LaJoie’s benching for a COVID-19 exposure and stricter NASCAR protocols had an impact this week in the Cup Series as drivers reconsidered public appearances and their vaccination status.

Joey Logano confirmed to NBC Sports during a media session Sunday morning at Michigan International Speedway that he elected to get vaccinated after LaJoie was sidelined by a COVID-19 close contact.

Though LaJoie since has tested negative for COVID-19, he is under a mandatory seven-day quarantine (with a test on the fifth day) before he can return to the car.

The policy is different for vaccinated drivers, who don’t have to quarantine but aren’t cleared to return to the NASCAR garage until they have a negative test three to five days later. In LaJoie’s case, his exposure to someone who tested positive occurred last Monday, meaning if he were vaccinated that he could have been cleared Thursday through Saturday to race at Michigan (where he was replaced Sunday by Josh Berry.

“I think it pushes you,” Logano said when asked if LaJoie being sidelined had drivers reconsidering whether to be vaccinated. “It definitely pushes you. Whether you want it to or not, it’s pressure to do it. Does it force you? No, but it could in a way. It made my decision for me. It’s backed you into a corner where you have to make a decision on what you think is best. Everyone is entitled to whatever that is.

“Either way it’s fine. It’s your decision. But it needs to be your decision. You can’t be forced into it. This is just pressure to that, though.”

Logano disclosed a few months ago during an appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR’s “The Morning Drive” that he had an offseason bout with COVID-19.

Brad Keselowski, who learned of Logano’s recent vaccination Sunday, said many Cup drivers soon could be joining his Penske teammate because vaccination shortens the window for being cleared to return to as little as three days (from a minimum of seven for the unvaccinated).

“I know a lot of people are considering it,” Keselowski said. “I think you’d be foolish not to. I don’t have any great answers, and I think everyone needs to do what’s best for themselves.”

Keselowski raced Sunday without front tire changer Ryan Flores, who also was in mandatory quarantine for being in the same podcast studio Monday as the close contact that benched LaJoie.

With NASCAR also altering its at-track policies this weekend (including restricting fans from being on the grid and in haulers and requiring reporters to wear masks in outdoor interviews), the level of concern has been elevated for drivers and teams facing the start of the playoffs in two weeks.

A NACAR spokesman said an hourlong Zoom call was held Friday morning with drivers who wanted clarification on the new protocols and LaJoie’s situation.

Several NASCAR executives were on the call, including director of racing operations Tom Bryant (who oversees COVID-19 protocols and consults with Dr. Megan Coffee, an epidemiologist who has advised NASCAR on the pandemic).

Drivers were advised to avoid poorly ventilated areas and to avoid long periods of contact. In accordance, NASCAR moved its weekly prerace media bullpens outside Sunday and capped driver’ sessions with masked reporters at 10 minutes.

Logano said he canceled three appearances this week and had put everything public on hold for the future.

“I can’t afford to do that,” he said. “It just changes what you can and can’t do for sponsors and the sport in general. You have to think from a way of saying, ‘How do I make sure I’m in the car?’ That’s most important. Because nothing against the team members, but you can’t score any points without the driver in the car. It completely ruins your season. If that happens two weeks from now, your whole season is gone because you got exposed. That’s not OK. That’s not good. Whether you’re vaccinated or not, you still could miss the race.

“I think we’re all learning this thing. It changes every day. You watch the news Monday and Friday and get a different answer. I don’t think anyone knows the truth. That’s a problem we have in our world right now is nobody knows the truth of what’s going on, and that’s scary. But if the protocol is what it is, that’s one thing that we know. How do I position myself best to make sure that I’m racing the car? And then you adjust to that.”

Aric Almirola, who recently qualified for the playoffs with his victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, said he had moved all of his appearances outdoors this week.

“It really boils down to exposure and where that exposure happens,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said. “I’m going to be very mindful of what situations I put myself in seeing this play out the way it’s played out for Corey, which I personally feel is very unfortunate for him. He seems to be in great health and have no issues and has tested negative and unfortunately due to protocols and the way things are in place, he can’t be here to race. So learning from that, I’ll be very careful what situations I put myself in, especially indoors for any length of time.

“Everything we’ve been doing, any suite appearances, we’ve moved to an outside meet and greet and being mindful of who you come in contact with and how close you come in contact. Making sure it’s outside. From everything we understand from the NASCAR calls, you greatly increase your risk indoors. So being outdoors and making sure you don’t spend any length of time in close contact with somebody gives you the best opportunity to not have to quarantine or sit out in case you come into some contact or exposure.”

Almirola said he “had no idea” whether more drivers would consider being vaccinated because of the improved timeframe for returning from a close contact.

“Whether it shortens the time frame or doesn’t, it’s a personal decision for all the drivers,” he said. “Everybody is going to make a different decision based on what they feel is best for them and their family. And at the end of the day racing is important, it’s our livelihood. But I think people will make choices based on what they feel is right for their health and their family, irregardless of what ramifications might come from being in a race car. It’s a very polarizing subject, and it’s very divisive as well. There’s a lot of opinions one way, a lot of opinions another way.”

Almirola was one of several drivers who declined to disclose their vaccination status Sunday.

In addition to Logano, William Byron and Tyler Reddick also said Sunday they were vaccinated. Denny Hamlin and Bubba Wallace are the only other Cup drivers known to have publicly confirmed they’ve been vaccinated.

Reddick said he “decided to get vaccinated months and months and months ago. I’ve not pressured anyone on my team vaccinated. Just personal preference based on how I’m going about my work week. It makes sense for me personally and my family to be vaccinated. No problem talking about that, but everyone ultimately has that choice. We live in the United States. We have the freedom to decide if we’re going to get up and go out the door every day or sit at home and watch Netflix or TV. I just thought it was going to be good for my guys and my team if I took that. That’s why I did it.

“All the other drivers that are going to be in the playoffs, we all know that missing one race is huge. We can’t really afford to do that. It’s going to be important to be smart, but ultimately, that’s a risk the drivers get to manage. It’s our responsibility and ultimately falls on our shoulders to manage our risks outside of the racetrack. (NASCAR is) doing everything they can to help manage those inside track grounds and inside the garage. We’re thankful for what they’re doing, and it’s going to be an ongoing process. The more we learn about it, the more it’ll continue to change.”

Some drivers have been lobbying NASCAR for a change that would clear a driver through multiple negative tests, but that seems unlikely to happen as the current protocols follow Centers for Disease Control guidance.

“I don’t think anyone really likes it,” Keselowski said. “I’m not sure I have a better idea. I don’t think anybody is happy to see Corey not be able to race. The system sucks for everybody. There’s no winners here. We’re all trying to work our way through it and wish Corey was here.

Said Logano: “There’s plenty of concern. It checks you up quite a bit on everything knowing that Corey was exposed, and Flores as well without having a positive test. Then you can’t go racing just like that. And not be able to go racing even if you test negative. You can’t come back racing. It doesn’t settle well. I think it made the all the drivers very nervous and makes you check up on what you’re doing.”